Idly I wondered if to “kiss the rod” in the context of women’s behaviour after being chastised by her husband was meant to be a double entendre – but probably not as she is high minded, but luckily I made my idle observation in a dejected off- hand way because later she says Respect for man, as man, is the foundation of every noble sentiment. How much more modest is the libertine who obeys the call of appetite or fancy than the lewd joker who sets the table in a roar! (p232), so shame on you if
I did allow myself to be intimidated in to putting off reading this book which has been languishing on the shelf since last year despite reading her impressively passionate Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in part by the terrifying title – vindication, rights, woman. All suggestive of great earnestness and grappling with fundamental issues, small wonder, I plead, that I allowed myself to be distracted by more lascivious and light hearted reading. Though plainly Mary W. is also an absolutely sweet person and if one was, through odd circumstances, transported back in time to 1790s London one would be sure to drag her in off the street from the rain , push her into an armchair by the fire, give her tea (view spoiler)[ only though with sugar not made by slave labour (hide spoiler)], a slab of fruit cake and a reviving glass of Marsala or Maderia wine.
Obviously I am disabled in various ways in reviewing Wollstonecraft, on account of sex and age (view spoiler)[ one needs ideally to be a child of the 1770s or 1760s to be at one with its flow (hide spoiler)] and expectation.
The last maybe is the most difficult for the idea of “Feminism” will hang over the reader, but she is Wollstoncraftian, and more besides, she is Mary (view spoiler)[ a woman with her own distinct experiences and obsessions(view spoiler)[ inescapably breast-feeding which leaks increasingly into the latter part of the text (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)], not the several hundred following years of thought, experience and expectation that come after her.
From fairly early on she seemed to me to be standing at a cultural crossroads, in what she writes one can see the currents which will flow off in some odd directions, her instance on the cultivation of virtue and sports seems to prefigure Muscular Christianity and Jolly Hockey sticks, her views on the centrality of the middle class – the upper class too feminised and Frenchified – the lower obviously too low coupled with (the deep roots of Brexit) her vehement ( & more than slightly surprising considering her politics) anti-continental prejudices is pure Jane Eyre, and yet the broader context of this work is her support for the declaration of the rights of man in revolutionary Paris. In that anti-continental feeling and her horror of Popery (view spoiler)[ I do wonder quite why anti-catholic feeling was so strong, did people seriously believe that given half a chance papists would be slitting the throats of all the protestants of a night? The expression of feeling comes across as that extreme and strongly held (hide spoiler)], taking me back twenty years to hearing the late Iain Paisley resplendent in his orange sash on television, she drives me like a steady drummer back towards the pages of Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 Her desire for woman to assert herself through virtue and through virtue and motherhood to assume or earn a familial and social centrality seems to prefigure The Angel in the House and a rather primly respectable Victorianism.
Curiously alongside her delight in breast-feeding mothers full of joy watching their children grow to sensible British adulthood is a horror of sex surprising to find in a mother of two (view spoiler)[ in a mother of one fair enough, allowance can be made for innocent experimentation, but with two plainly she would have known what was involved (hide spoiler)] she hoists the flag early of no sex please, we’re British reminding me of a line in George Mike’s How to be an alien to the effect of that people on the continental mainland have sex-lives, while in Britain there are hot water bottles. While I haven’t spent a day with binoculars trained on the windows of neighbouring houses I’m dubious that people are, or were, so busily engaged in copulation as to cause mass miscarriages and barrenness in women, I imagine her strong distaste for intimacy between husband and wife and celebration of chastity (view spoiler)[ rather confusingly sitting alongside her celebration of motherhood (hide spoiler)] reflects her experience of her parent’s married life. While on the one hand it is quite fun to see so sensible a woman being silly, on the other hand in her vision of men and women as sexual beings and the social value of repression and sublimation one can see her as thinking along similar lines to Freud (view spoiler)[ though earlier and with less cocaine, and with no sense of the potential damage involved in repression, here we’re still in the days when repression was good for you, character building no doubt (hide spoiler)]. At its root it is quite a powerful vision of human nature and society.
In addition to being a forerunner of Mary Whitehouse, some other elements remain contemporary, her picture of women only valued for their transient youthful beauty could with small changes to her eighteenth century habits of expression could have come straight from a newspaper column about the disappearance of women of a certain age (view spoiler)[ I won’t say which on account of it being impolite to publicly discuss a woman’s age (hide spoiler)] from television screens. More darkly I felt her picture of emancipated woman not as a person at ease but ideally forever on guard and dedicated to serious thinking who forcefully rejects with outrage all fripperies as abominations devoting herself to her breast-fed children was also modern – the great pillar of shoulds and social requirements towering over the small naked figure of the actual individual trying to live their lives as best they can. And if you don’t want to be, or can’t be, a breast- feeding mother then Mary Wollstonecraft is not going to be forgiving. Perhaps dark also in her criticism of female behaviour that doesn’t come up to her high minded ideals. The rights and wrongs of woman’s behaviour and dress are never to be a private matter it seems, but always an issue of burning public interest.
Actually as a man reading a book like this one is enormously reassured because in her account its all about the men. Man oppresses woman, only man has the potential to emancipate (view spoiler)[ the explicit comparison to slavery is made several times, both in terms of legal status and in the lingering mental impact (hide spoiler)] woman, woman cannot free herself – which may I suppose be simply the fairly sober reality of woman’s lack of legal status in eighteenth century Britain, man is at the centre anyhow. Wollstonecraft’s portrayal is dialectical, man and woman are in a dynamic relationship but one based on (male) false consciousness – man thinks he is doing himself a favour by raising and limiting woman to simply be a voluptuous sexual companion but by doing so he deprives himself of a sturdy and sensible mother to his children, who won’t be out all night gambling and boozing or tyrannising the household due to her petty ignorances or hanging about around astrologers.
If in her sensible and reasonable views on the monarchy, British system of government, and tax policy, she remains sadly considerably ahead of our times, in other ways radicalism withheld is an important theme of her work. Liberation is for the middle class woman, and her liberation requires the continued drudgery of lower class woman (view spoiler)[ still I suppose a live issue (hide spoiler)]. Still one of the many problems in opening your trap and allowing words to tumble out, or in putting pen to paper is that others can see potentials and possibilities that you yourself (view spoiler)[ not meaning you of course honoured Goodreader (hide spoiler)] are blind to. And in her message of emancipation of woman as good for man we can see the potential that the liberation of the lower classes must logically be equally good for all society, the same arguments for the release of talent and the strengthening of the individual must hold. In this way the potential of Wollstonecraft’s work is bigger and more impressive than her written argument. Her sense of the constriction of women’s lives primarily as a phenomenon of mentalité is particularly powerful, merely changing laws is insufficient and silly, it is our interior culture which requires Reformation.
This in the way of some pre-modern writing is a little unstructured and so under powered as a result she looses her self early on up a dead end with a discussion of man’s natural dominance over woman as a result of strength, as though among men strength ever played a role in dominance – when was the undisputed champion boxer Pontif Maximus, when the faster runner chief Judge or mightiest weight lifter King? Softer skills of persuasion and cunning or more vaguely of charisma (view spoiler)[ often indicated by being the abandoned child of an unmarried teen-aged mother (hide spoiler)] are more typical of our leaders than muscles.
I feel I’ve rather run around here and I don’t think any amount of tea will get the review properly afloat again.
In terms of the argument, the Rights of Man, and the ink fought wars fought in the British press over the rights and woeful wrongs of the French Revolution are unspoken in the background. Indeed this book is one soldier in that battle. Nor is Wollenstonecraft ever explicit about what the Rights of Woman are, though she is explicit that this is about Middle-class women, not all women. Woman is enslaved and educated into a limited culture of dependence and sensuality, the answer to her mind is universal primary mixed sex education (view spoiler)[ with social segregation from the age of nine with trade schools for lower class children (hide spoiler)], well after a hundred odd years of that I’d say in relation to her hope in the trans-formative power of education that optimists are terribly nice people, but I’m glad I’m not one of them. Her view is slightly curious in that early on she sees the inferior status of woman as a social phenomena, perpetuated through social structures, nor does she see any potential conflict between child rearing and middle-class women having professional careers – but then she assumes a dependant servant class.
Any review is going to be slightly unfair in that she originally envisioned her polemic as a multi volume work, typically enough maybe this was the only part which was completed, had she written her heart out, no doubt she’d have thrown up other issues and answers.
taught only to please, women are always on the watch to please, and with true heroic ardour endeavour to gain hearts merely to resign or spurn them when the victory is decided and conspicuous (p147)
For such women who seek to risk the path of self-emancipation Wollstonecraft recommends (view spoiler)[alongside mother hood and breast-feeding(view spoiler)[ and really her pictures of ruddy chubby children, and stalwart mothers are endearing (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)] gardening, natural philosophy, and literature – though biographies in preference to romances(view spoiler)[There is a long section criticising books and writers she doesn’t approve of for their constricting views of woman -first and foremost Rousseau (view spoiler)[ I can’t say I’m convinced that England was awash in the 1790s with the influence of Rousseau, the whole section felt like a battle with the pygmies (view spoiler)[ with all due respects to the pygmies who I know did their best against the Cranes (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)].
She doesn’t like that private vices might be public virtues, for her virtue seeds virtue. So her’s is an austere vision, with rights come duties, most demandingly towards oneself, rarely can a vision of freedom have entailed so much work, the playful rococo gives way to sharp and simple lines, of profound moral seriousness & weight.